Why academics can’t get beyond moderates and radicals

By Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

* This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” 

For much of the past decade, analyses of Islamist groups have been organized around a distinction between moderates and radicals. Analysts and scholars have never agreed on precise definitions of either, but the distinction has largely been used as a point of departure. In the post-Arab-uprisings Middle East, with sectarianism increasingly salient and the Islamic State (also called ISIS) altering the landscape of jihadism, scholars should ask whether these categories continue to provide the kind of analytic traction that made them valuable in the past. The constant pressure on scholars of Middle East politics to respond to a growing wave of Islamophobia has complicated efforts to rethink these categories. Public engagement is a vital part of the academic mission, but has our need to constantly reiterate in public that all Muslims are not Islamists and that most Islamists are moderate constrained our scholarly analyses by forcing us to retreat into the language of moderates and radicals?

Much of my own work on Islamists has embraced the idea that the distinction between moderates and radicals is both analytically useful and empirically accurate. In 1996, during an early stage of my research for “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen,” a member of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood expressed exasperation with then-recent “regulations” promulgated by the Taliban in Afghanistan, including a law that a man must have a beard at least a fist in length. I hadn’t raised the topic, but he conveyed that he had been speaking with colleagues about the Taliban earlier that day, and he said to me, “Well I guess this means that I’m not a good Muslim!” Indeed, by that standard, most male members of the Muslim Brotherhood – for whom a mustache seemed to be a favored aesthetic choice for facial hair – were not “good” Muslims. For the whole of my period of field research in the mid- and late-1990s, moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamists like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, were easily distinguishable and also highly antagonistic toward the other. Continue reading on the Monkey Cage.


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